Jail and Prison Inmate Safety Checks


Throughout the country most jails and prisons require routine inmate safety checks in accordance with policy and/or state regulations.  These inmate safety checks may be required hourly or several times an hour depending on the needs of the inmates and the facility.  These required routine inmate safety checks should never be confused with required inmate counts.  They are two very different things.


The difference between inmate counts and inmate safety checks:


Inmate counts are conducted to ensure each inmate assigned to the jail or prison is accounted for and has not escaped.


Inmate safety checks are conducted to ensure the inmates:


 • Are not involved in criminality (gambling, making weapons, drug usage, fighting, etc.),


 • Ensuring inmates are not suffering medical trauma such as an assault or an attempted suicide, etc.,


 • Ensuring inmates are not in medical distress such as suffering an asthma attack or a heart attack, etc.


The difference between the use of video and eyes-on safety checks:


Many jails and prisons use video monitors to supervise inmates and for overall security.  The use of video monitors should never replace actual eyes-on of the inmate.


Keep in mind for a correctional officer to have eyes-on an inmate, the correctional officer must personally view the inmate.  The correctional officer must be close enough to see skin and ensure the inmate is breathing.


A proper safety check is done by direct visual observation, not by video.


In a dormitory setting, the correctional officer must enter the dorm, with back up, and get close enough to the inmates to conduct direct visual observation of the inmates.


If a correctional officer stands at the entrance to the dorm or at the bars to the dorm and looks inside, that is not a proper safety check.


The safety check logs:


When the safety checks are conducted, the officer conducting the check must log the time of the check and their observations at the time of the check.  It is important for the officer conducting the safety check to do so accurately.  This means whatever the officer sees the inmate doing at the time of the check must be accurately reflected in writing in the safety check log.


If the safety checks are not done properly, when needed, emergency medical care would be delayed.


Obstructed views of the inmates:


Covering up:


Correctional officers cannot properly conduct inmate safety checks if their views of the inmates are obstructed.


Perhaps the most common obstruction is the inmates’ use of their blankets to fully cover up while sleeping.


It is not uncommon for inmates to cover their heads with their blankets in order to sleep.  However, correctional officers should never allow inmates to fully cover up in this fashion.


Besides not being able to see if there is an actual inmate under the blanket, the correctional officer cannot discern whether the inmate is breathing and/or suffering medical distress.  I know from my many years of jail experience, inmates have been badly beaten and then told to cover up to hide their injuries.


Correctional officers must instruct inmates not to fully cover up and if they do cover up and fall asleep, they will be awakened so their health can be assured by direct visual supervision.


Of course inmates should not be needlessly disturbed and/or rousted.  Nevertheless, to properly conduct inmate safety checks to ensure inmates are not suffering medical trauma, not engaged in criminal activity, are actually alive (eyes-on, to see skin, to see if there is breathing, etc.), and to make sure there is in fact a living person under the covers and that there has not been an escape, the staff must always insist that inmates show themselves in cases where the inmates are completely covered up.  Jail and prison staff should not be fearful of inmate complaints when it comes to safety and security.


Other obstructions:


Sometimes, privacy wall next to the toilet.  These privacy walls are common in jails and prisons.  Correctional officers must be aware that if the privacy wall hinders the requirement of direct visual observation if the inmate is behind the wall, the officer will instruct the inmate to move into his view.  If the officer cannot get the inmate to respond to his/her command, the officer will summon back up and will enter the cell to check on the inmate.


In a case wherein an inmate does not respond to the officer’s commands, besides the officer getting back up to go inside, the officer would also call for the nurse to respond out an abundance of caution.  The whole purpose of the safety check is ensuring the health of the inmate.


How long does it take to properly perform a safety check?


If during a safety check the correctional officer walks by and glances at an inmate who for example may be sitting at a desk reading, the officer would know the inmate is alive, but would not know, by a passing glance, if the inmate is suffering medical distress.  If the inmate is in his/her bunk and appears to be sleeping, more than a passing glance is required to do a proper safety check.


Remember, the correctional officer must view each inmate and look for signs of medical trauma and medical distress to perform a proper safety check.  It takes time to do a proper check.


Simply flashing a flashlight into a darkened cell window for less than a second or so and seeing an inmate or inmates inside does not make a safety check.


A correctional officer must get close enough to see each inmate and then look long enough to determine if the inmate is in medical distress and/or involved in criminality.


If you consider the average adult has a respiration rate between 12 to 20 times a minute, it would take at least 3 seconds to watch an intake of breath if the person’s breathing rate was 20 times a minute.  If the person is breathing at a slower rate of 12 times a minute, you would have to watch the person for at least 5 seconds to see the person take an intake of breath.  To reiterate, a passing glance is not a proper safety check.


Note: The average breathing rate information comes from the Institute for the Prevention of In-custody Deaths (IPICD), California POST basic first aid training, and from my training and experience as a Los Angeles County paramedic.


For example, if the correctional officer’s inmate safety check log shows that he/she conducted an official safety check of 145 sleeping inmates in under 3 minutes, that in and of itself is evidence of an improper safety check.  It is physically impossible to view each inmate long enough to see if they are breathing, let alone suffering medical trauma.


If the officer spends a minimum of 3 seconds per inmate to see if they take at least one breath, at a breathing rate of 20 times a minute, that means it would take 7.5 minutes to effectively view each inmate.


As I write this article, my own breathing rate is 14 breaths a minute.  An officer would have to watch me for at least 4 seconds to see me take one breath.


If there are 145 inmates and they are all breathing at the slower rate of 14 times a minute, then 9.6 minutes would be needed to properly view each sleeping inmate.  That time does not include the time it takes to walk around the living area, go up and down the stairs if needed, and to check on inmates who may be fully covered up.


In the example above, since there is no way a proper safety check of 145 inmates could be done in under 3 minutes, then not only did this safety check not benefit the inmate, but the officer’s safety check log would not at all be accurate.


The use of video:


As a jail and prison practices expert, it is my practice to always request video of the safety checks.  Many times during my evaluation of the safety checks, the written logs shows the checks were done; however, the video shows they were not done properly or not done at all.


In a drug overdose jail death case I evaluated, the checks were all logged on time, but the video showed the correctional officers walking up to the cell and glancing in each time for less that a second while the inmate lay dying on the floor.


In a jail suicide case I evaluated, the safety checks were all logged, but the video showed the correctional officer walking by the cells without looking into them.  The officer walked right by the decedent hanging in his cell more than once.


In a jail self-mutilation case I evaluated, the video showed some of the safety checks were not performed at all while the inmate lay on his cell floor badly injured.


The role of supervision:


Jail and prison supervisors must, at various times a shift, observe the staff as the safety checks are being done and must verify the logs are accurate.




In order to keep inmates safe and healthy, the importance of the correctional staff performing inmate safety checks properly, every time, cannot be over stated.





While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this information, it is provided for educational purposes and is not intended to provide legal advice.


About the author:


Richard Lichten (Lt. Retired) brings 30 years of front-line law enforcement experience to a wide range of police and jail topics. Twenty of his 30 years in the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department were in supervisory and command positions. Richard Lichten is deemed a qualified expert in the use of force, use of the Taser, police/jail practices, and jail/prison inmate culture in the State of California Superior Courts, State of Nevada Courts, State of Arizona Courts, State of Hawaii Courts, and in Federal Courts.



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